KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Royals agreed to a $32 million, four-year contract with left-hander Jason Vargas on Thursday, trying to fill the void in their rotation created by Ervin Santana’s free agency.
Vargas was 9-8 with a 4.02 ERA in 24 starts for the Angels last season. He was 6-4 with a 3.65 ERA before going on the disabled list with a blood clot in his arm that required surgery.
Kansas City was searching for a veteran to replace Santana, another former Angels pitcher who rediscovered himself in Kansas City. Santana went 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA last season, driving up his price in free agency to the point where the Royals are unlikely to sign him.
“Our medical team felt very comfortable, our scouting judgment was very sound, with the length of the contract as well. It all kind of lined up together,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “We felt very confident and secure in making him a Royal.”
Vargas, a soft-tossing lefty who turns 31 in February, gets $7 million next season, $8.5 million in each of the following two years and $8 million in 2017.
He had shown a propensity for giving up home runs, but that should be mitigated by cavernous Kauffman Stadium. That was the case with Santana, who also allowed homers by the bushel in Los Angeles before getting things under control in Kansas City.
“The biggest thing for me was being in a place where I knew I would be at for a significant amount of time, and with an organization where I felt comfortable,” Vargas said, “and I believed in what they’re doing and continuing to get better, and Kansas City was definitely at the top of that list going into the offseason.”
Vargas will be joining a club that finished 86-76 last season, its best finish since 1989, and was in contention for a playoff berth until the final weeks of the season.
“What excited me about the team is how I’ve seen the team grow and progress a lot over the last four or five years,” Vargas said. “Their defense is spectacular and I’m just hoping I can be a piece of the puzzle that helps move us forward.”
Vargas isn’t the sort of splashy signing that will make Royals fans salivate, but he does solidify the back end of what’s expected to be a young rotation.
James Shields returns next season as their clear-cut ace and Jeremy Guthrie provides a dependable No. 2 starter. Danny Duffy is a near-lock to make the rotation out of spring training after he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery this past season, leaving one more spot in the rotation up for grabs among a handful of in-house candidates.
Among those would could land the fifth spot are Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar and Will Smith — all former starters who spent time last season in the bullpen — and hard-throwing right-hander Yordano Ventura, who made his big league debut last season and dazzled in three September starts.
Most people within the organization believe that Ventura will be in the rotation at some point next season, even if he doesn’t earn a spot in spring training.
There’s also a chance that Kyle Zimmer, their former first-round pick, will be ready at some point next season. Zimmer finished last season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
“There’s still ways we can improve our team, through the rotation, trying to add another bat, we feel like we have some quality young pitchers who are going to be competing for spots,” Moore said. “There’s still a lot of opportunity out there to improve our starting pitching.”
Vargas, who missed the 2008 season with a torn labrum in his hip, is 51-58 with a 4.30 ERA in parts of eight seasons spent with the Marlins, Mets, Mariners and Angels. His best season came two years ago, when he went 14-11 with a 3.85 ERA in 33 starts for Seattle.
If nothing else, Vargas should be able to eat innings. He was limited to 150 by his surgery last season, but went over 200 innings each of his final two seasons with the Mariners.
“You try to get 200 innings out of your starters and Jason has been able to do that,” Moore said. “He’s been one of the more consistent pitchers in all of baseball over the last few years, and we feel like he’s right in the prime of his career.”